Wednesday, March 26, 2014

they're all precious in His sight

I suppose Liv has to be Facebook friends with Mary, her son-in-law's mother. I guess it's the polite thing to do in the Internet Age. So, Liv accepted the friend request and continued to go about her Facebook business — viewing family pictures, playing Candy Crush, you know — just like anyone.

One day, on a daily check-in on Facebook,  Liv received an invitation from Mary. It was for an event called "Son Rise Music Festival," a celebration in song featuring performances and bands with a decidedly (nay, overtly) Christian slant. Liv, who is Jewish, declined the invitation. Mary responded, curious as to why Liv would not be attending. This is the exchange that took place:

Mary: Why aren't you going to Son Rise?

Liv: It's my grandson's birthday the same weekend, besides — I'm not really interested in a Christian music festival.

Mary: What do you mean?

Liv: I'm not Christian, Mary. I'm Jewish!

Mary: You believe in God, right?

Liv: Yes.

Mary: Well, then you're Christian!

Liv: No, Mary, Jews believe in God, but we don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah and we don't believe that Jesus was the son of God.

Mary: You don't? I thought everyone believed that.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

smile, darn ya, smile!

My teeth have suffered the fate of a youth spent eating countless Snickers bars and infrequent visits to the dentist. My parents were not diligent in taking me for twice-yearly checkups and they didn't encourage nor enforce a proper tooth-brushing regimen. So, as an adult, I pay the price.

Various employer-issued insurance programs have dictated who my dentist would be. I have had to choose from a list of "in-network" names, purely based on the geographic proximity of their office to my house. I had no loyalty to any dentist and I usually only scheduled a visit when I was experiencing excruciating pain. Otherwise, out of sight out of mind.

As the years went on, the scenario playing out in my mouth didn't get any better. However, visits to the dentist did. Tandläkare is my current dentist. She has been for many years now. Tandläkare is my wife's cousin from Sweden and she is as sweet as the day is long. So, this week, when she was telling me how a reckless childhood of candy bars and poor hygiene has fucked up my teeth, it wasn't so bad. When she explained how she was going to fit me for a partial, yet removable, apparatus — one lined with replacement false teeth and spanning the roof of my mouth, she made it sound almost comforting.

A couple early hours before work, I found myself reclining in an adjustable chair, a paper bib across my chest protecting my shirt from any stray bits of enamel, dental adhesive and saliva. Tandläkare, the lower portion of her face obscured by a surgical mask, began filling a U-shaped piece of stainless steel with a pinkish goop. With the command of "Open wide," she shoved that thing into my mouth and issued another piece of instruction: "Bite down." I obeyed, and my teeth (the ones that are left) and gums were immediately engulfed in a thick, cold, foreign substance reminiscent of bathtub caulk (if one were to sink their teeth into bathtub caulk). I sat for several long, uncomfortable minutes with my teeth in a mini dental version of the forecourt of Graumann's Chinese Theater. Tandläkare tried to engage me in idle chit-chat, but gave up when my end of the conversation consisted only of grunts and throaty gurgles. Soon, the gloppy horseshoe was extracted from my maw. I was offered a mirror and damp cloth to wipe away any excess material that didn't find its way into my mouth.

Satisfied with the impression she got from her little arts-and-crafts project, Tandläkare dismissed me after a quick once-over with a dental pick and a mirror. (Granted, there's not a whole lot to look at in my mouth.) I will return in a few weeks at which time I will receive my new choppers.

Now, how am I going to pay for 'em? That's that part I don't like about going to the dentist!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

sorry seems to be the hardest word

During the work week, my alarm is set to go off before the sun comes up. Not to say I actually get out of bed at that time, but that electronic buzz serves as a reminder of  my responsibility to my employer. So, after five long, grueling days at work, I look forward to the weekends.I sleep a little later. I lounge on the sofa. I leisurely sip a cup of coffee while watching an episode of Phineas & Ferb or an old rerun of The Monkees.

On Saturday morning, my weekend slumber was unceremoniously interrupted just before 7 am. From just outside my bedroom window came a series of high-pitched squeals and loud, mournful sobs, interspersed by a staccato repetition of "I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY." 

What the fuck!, I thought as I leaped from the warm confines of my quilt.

I scrambled to the window and parted two slats of Venetian blinds with my index finger. I peered out into the early sunlight. From my second-story vantage point, I could see my teenage neighbor parading up and down on the sidewalk in front of my house. Despite a typical late February morning temperature, he was wearing a tank top and warm-up pants. And he was barefoot. With one hand, he pressed a cellphone to his cheek while he flailed his free arm in unbridled anger. Every few seconds, he pulled the cellphone away from his ear, positioned it in front of his mouth and spewed his rapid-fire "I'M SORRY I'M SORRY" mantra to the person on the other end. His unintelligible dialogue was punctuated by the anguished cries of a wounded puppy.

My wife stirred. "What the hell is going on out there?"

"Alex., " I replied, "from next door."

She rolled her eyes and soon took her place at an adjacent window as a late spectator.

A car pulled across my neighbor's driveway, blocking the access apron. Alex stomped his bare feet on the pavement as he approached the vehicle. He grabbed the passenger-side door handle and pulled. It did nothing, so he pulled harder. Still no result. He screamed in a voice raised to cracking, "UNLOCK THE DOOR!" The driver, obscured by the dark tint of the windshield, did not oblige. Alex yelled louder, his voice strained and cracking in misery. The shadowy figure behind the steering wheel didn't budge. Alex stood in place, then did a brief "anger dance," bringing his knees up in alternating leg motions and rotating his body each time his foot smashed the pavement. Giving a final, exasperated moan, he marched up the front walk to his house. Although his front entrance is out of the line of vision from our bedroom window, we heard the unmistakable sound of his front door slam.

"Well, I'm getting coffee.," I said to Mrs. P. My morning had started, whether I liked it or not.

Monday, March 17, 2014

take me to church

You would think that after three thousand years, people would be used to us Jews by now. It has been my experience that, even in a civilized, blended, multicultural society such as ours, Jews are still misunderstood and viewed as a novelty. With the exception of the ultra-observant Orthodox, we dress and behave the same as everyone else. (If it's any consolation, most Orthodox Jews dismiss non-Orthodox Jews as non-Jews.) Some of our dietary restrictions (no pork, no shellfish, no mixing of meat and dairy) are no more prohibitive than the current crop of restrictions at any elementary school or daycare (no peanuts, no sugary snacks), although the majority of Jews eat what they want.

We celebrate holidays like July Fourth and Thanksgiving alongside non-Jews. For the most part, we don't celebrate Christmas or Easter, but we have no problem eating candy canes or Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs (except in daycare). Christians don't light a menorah or choke down matzo and we don't question nor care.

Some Jewish holidays feature traditional food, just like Christian holidays. The aforementioned matzo on Passover and potato latkes on Chanukah are the most well known. This past weekend commemorated the holiday of Purim, a celebration of triumph over another megalomaniacal asshole wanting to wipe out the Jews (so what else is new?), this time in ancient Persia. The traditional food for this holiday is hamantaschen, a triangular-shaped pastry with a variety of fruit fillings. Over the years, these baked treats have become more prevalent and have made their way into mainstream bakeries for year-round enjoyment. My wife and her family have been making and distributing them to friends and relations annually on Purim for years. For most of those years, I have brought a tray amply laden with home-baked hamantaschen to my current place of employment. This year was no exception.

I have worked at my current employer for seven years. So, for the past seven Purims, I have offered a sampling of hamantaschen to my co-workers. The few Jewish members of my department were, of course, unfazed. But my gentile co-workers marveled at the pile of goodies as though it was a spacecraft from another planet. One co-worker asked, as she daintily picked up one of the golden tarts for inspection, "Is there anything I should know?"

 "Well," I replied, "it won't convert you, if that's what you're afraid of."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

no more pencils, no more books

We got new next-door neighbors a couple years ago. A seemingly nice young couple with a little boy around five years old. Mom and Dad were quiet and cordial. The little boy was animated, imaginative and pretty funny, too. After a week or so of friendly waves while backing out of the driveway or a smile and a nod as I passed their house on my walk from the train station, Mrs. P and I formally introduced ourselves. And, as would be expected, they introduced themselves.

We later discovered that the name they gave as theirs, was not.

Then things got weirder.

We live in, what is colloquially referred to, as a "twin" house. That is a single building comprised of two single-family dwellings sharing a common wall at the center. The individual floor plans of each home are usually mirror images of each other. (In some areas, this type of structure is called "semi-detached" or "duplex," but "duplex" means something entirely different in the Philadelphia area.) Many times we see the boy, Fan, playing outside on his small front lawn. He is usually clothed in some sort of role-playing costume, like a policeman or a construction worker. Fan builds elaborate displays of traffic cones and wooden planks, imagining himself directing traffic around a cordoned-off crime scene or shoring up the foundation of a skyscraper. He chatters to himself and then happily describes his plans to his disinterested father, his zoned-out mother or, frequently, an attentive Mrs. P.

Since our house is connected to our neighbor's house, every so often, we can hear loud noises through the common wall. The clang from a dropped pot in their kitchen, though muffled, is still quite recognizable, as is the stomping of someone angrily descending or ascending the stairs. Sometimes we hear other sounds. Like screaming. And scolding. And hollering. And crying. Considering the age of our home (nearly a century), the walls are pretty thick. The noise has to pretty loud to penetrate such thick walls.

During the final weeks of December, we saw Fan playing in the excessive snow that covered and lingered in the Philadelphia area. When the other children from the neighborhood went back to school after Winter Break, we still saw Fan dragging his little sled through the snow during weekday mornings. One day, Fan's mother, a woman reminiscent of the flower children of the middle 1960s, explained (without provocation) she and Fan's father decided to pull Fan from conventional schooling and further his education at home. She called the program "unschooling." A subsequent Google search identified "unschooling" as a question-based method of teaching, promoting understanding and learning through the natural curiosity of everyday life experiences. I suppose that includes screaming, because the noise levels from "their side of the wall" escalated and became more frequent, sometimes erupting at an hour when a five-year old should be asleep.

On a particular Sunday, I was once again shoveling snow (as I found myself doing many times during this winter) and Mrs. P was clearing off her car. Fan's mom approached us and asked if my wife could explain to Fan what it means to "keep kosher." She knows we are Jewish and that we maintain a kosher home. The always helpful Mrs. P, a former teacher and proponent of early education, was only too happy to oblige. She began to describe the basics of keeping kosher to Fan. Fan, however, was more interested in riding the gentle slope of our snow-covered lawn on his sled. So much for learning through inquisitiveness.

When I came home from work yesterday, Mrs. P and I decided to head out for dinner. As I was putting on my coat, my wife told me that Fan was playing outside all day, climbing trees and riding his bike up and down the sidewalk. We locked the door and made our way to the car. There was Fan. Outside. Climbing a tree. We waved "hello" and he rattled off some details of whatever fantasy game he was making up. Then, he said, "When I used to go to school...." and sort of trailed off — laughing.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

some that you recognize, some that you hardly even heard of

I started collecting autographed photos over twenty years ago. It began as a cool little hobby and offered the opportunity to actually meet some of the "celebrities," (and I use that term extremely free and loose) whose work I enjoyed both on television and the silver screen. Come to think of it, it is not unlike my other hobby of visiting cemeteries where famous people are buried.

The majority of my photos have been obtained at various collector shows. Twice a year, a promoter organizes a horror film-themed gathering at a local hotel's conference facility, consisting of screenings of classic and recent films and a room full of vendors offering overpriced DVDs, t-shirts, toys and various blood-and-gore covered trinkets for sale. The main draw of this convention is the line-up of celebrity guests offering personally autographed pictures, a possible photo opportunity and even a little chit-chat.

The first autographed picture in my collection was from Butch Patrick, the irrepressible werewolf son "Eddie" on the 60s sitcom The Munsters. For a mere five bucks, Eddie — I mean Butch — inscribed a glossy black & white shot of himself in full TV makeup. He also signed a stack of Munsters color postcards for us (that my wife later sold on eBay) and he engaged my wife and me in lengthy, yet benign, conversation. Unfortunately for Butch, the only other guest at this particular show was Davy Jones, fresh from the first (and wildly popular) Monkees reunion tour. The line of screaming girls waiting to meet Davy was ridiculously long. The line to meet Butch Patrick consisted of my wife, my son in a stroller and myself. He didn't want to let us leave.

Since then, my collection has expanded exponentially. I have met hundreds of "celebrities," (there's that word again). Some have been really nice and friendly (Lost in Space's Bill Mumy comes to mind, as well as comedian/actor Taylor Negron). Some have been total, fan-hating assholes (the late Ron Palillo, without naming names). Others I have fucked with (like poor Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson). Still, others have fucked with me (like poor Greatest American Hero William Kaat). Overall, it has always made for a fun time. And, I have added to my collection so often that I've had to continually reconfigure (unsuccessfully, I might add) the display to accommodate additional photos. But, I fear my collecting days may be over soon. The experience is sort of losing its "fun."

Last night, I attended the first night of the twice-yearly Monster Mania convention (or "CON," to the in-crowd). I didn't really want to go after last year's Christopher Lloyd debacle, as I have come to reference the incident. Anxious to meet the two-time Oscar nominated, three-time Emmy winning co-star of the greatest movie of all time, Back to the Future (Don't even fucking argue with me! Don't!), I queued up and perused the array of photos he had available for signing. I chose a classic shot of Mr. Lloyd as "Doc Brown" in his mind-reading headgear. His "handlers" (the guys who handle the cash, as "celebrities" don't deal with — ecchhhh! — dirty money) informed me of the $60 cost. SIXTY BUCKS! I was outraged when the ten dollar price of a photo escalated to and settled at twenty. Reluctantly, I paid and when I finally reached Mr. Lloyd, offering a bit of praise, he didn't crack a smile or utter a word. He even smeared the wet ink of his signature as he handed the photo to me. He also cringed at my attempted handshake. 

I approached the big autograph room, where "celebrities" line the perimeter as the center is packed with a web of delineated queues (marked on the floor by parallel strips of masking tape), each leading to a particular "star's" table. Oh, and it seems that horror fans shun deodorant. So, there's that  

The entrance already had a fairly long line that was pushed off to one side. I asked a staff member if that was a line for the whole room. She answered, "No, that line is for Emily." 

"Well," I said, "since I don't know who 'Emily' is, can I go right in?" (It turns out that "Emily" is Emily Kinney from the popular AMC zombiefest, The Walking Dead.... and I still don't know who she is.)

The staff member smiled and pointed the way.

"Hello Danny."
My first stop was the show's main draw, identical twins Lisa and Louise Burns. Thirty-four years ago, in Stanley Kubrick's production of The Shining, the petite sisters donned pale blue party dresses and invited young Danny Torrence (played by former child actor, now high school science teacher Danny Lloyd), to "come play forever and ever and ever". Then, seconds later, they appeared in a mind-jarring jump-cut — lifeless, slashed and bloodied — thereby cementing their place in motion picture history. All for about four minutes of screen time.

"Lord help the mister who comes
between me and my sister."
I printed out a pair of illustrations I had done in 2012, depicting their famous film career beginning and end. They were delighted and even asked me to sign the prints for them. I joked briefly with the ladies (now in their mid-40s and totally removed from show business). They were sweet and funny. Hmmm, maybe this wasn't gonna be such a bad experience after all. They signed a picture for me and I was on my way to my next "celebrity" encounter.

Several years ago, I visited the Los Angeles Farmers Market with my family. After grabbing some doughnuts and coffee from Bob's, Mrs. P wandered into a cool little antique store while my son and I strolled through the narrow, vendor-lined aisles. We passed a pretty woman quietly enjoying a salad at a sun-drenched picnic table. I pointed to the woman, directing my son's attention, and said, "That's Dee Wallace."

My son returned a blank stare.

"The mom from E.T.," I explained.

"Oh.," he said, still expressing no interest.

Me and Dee.
Well, now, Ms. Wallace was a mere five feet from me, sitting at a table, signing autographs for twenty bucks a pop. I got into line and when my turn came, I related the LA Farmers Market story. She smiled, although she couldn't seem to recall eating there in some time. She told me she rarely goes there, as it is quite a drive from her home. I maintained that it was definitely her, but... now that I think about it, it could have been Melinda Dillion. I always get them confused. Dee was very nice, if not confused a bit by my story.

"Who wants a hot dog?"
As I made my way out of the room, I passed a small table, on which were displayed a few unusual rings, several small stacks of reproductions of vintage photos and a few books. Seated behind the table was the author of said books, Victoria Price. Ms. Price is an artist, interior designer and daughter of legendary actor Vincent Price. She sat quietly, demurely, and surveyed her wares as way-too-young patrons passed by, more enamored by the likes of the several Freddy Krueger impersonators mingling through the crowd. One of the photos — a beautifully composed shot of Vincent Price distributing hot dogs to an eager and joyous crowd in an early 1960s Dodger Stadium — caught my eye. Between my love of Hollywood and my love of baseball, I had to have a copy of the print. Ms. Price was even kind enough to sign it with the playful inscription "Bon Appetit!"  I told her that on my one and only visit to Dodger Stadium, my family and I were the only ones in our section who were not employed by the Trader Joe's in Santa Monica. She laughed. She was delightful. I told her I was an artist and we exchanged business cards. A little networking never hurt anyone. My original grumbly mood was slowly disappearing.

I was finished. The crowds were getting bigger. The vendor room offered nothing I had an interest in and I was tired after a full day of work. I headed out to the parking lot. Actually, I parked on an access road behind the hotel, as the lot was filled to capacity when I arrived. I maneuvered my way through he cars and remnant piles of dirty snow. Suddenly, a car sidled up to me and the driver lowered his window.

"Are you leaving, sir?." he asked. Sir. I shivered.

"Yes I am."

"Are you coming back tomorrow?," the driver continued to pry.

"No, I am not."

"Can I buy your wristband for ten bucks?," he asked, referring to the Tyvek band encircling my right wrist, allowing full access to everything that Monster Mania had to offer. Considering I was not one bit pleased by the newly-inflated admission price of thirty dollars, I quickly agreed.

"I don't know if I can remove it without tearing it." I lamented.

"No problem., " the driver smiled, and he jammed two fives into my hand. Within a second, the band was off. "Everybody wins!," he said.

"Have a good time!," I called, as he drove off.

Well.... maybe I'll go to another one of these shows.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

the bleeding hearts and artists make their stand

When I broke the news to my parents that I decided to go to art school (and they subsequently didn't give a rat's ass), I was very discerning in my selection. First and foremost, since I was such a terrible student through twelve years of public school, I sought a curriculum that was purely art — no math, no science, none of that useless shit that I struggled with and would never, ever reference in my adult life, save for the random viewing of Jeopardy!. Second on my list was... well, I really didn't have a second... or a third, for that matter. All I wanted was art-related classes and nothing on which I would be tested.

After researching art programs at area universities and stand-alone art schools, I settled on the Hussian School of Art. In 1946, respected Philadelphia commercial artist and lecturer John Hussian founded the school after encouragement from the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art (long before Rocky ran up the front steps and ruined the regal mystique for everyone). Mr. Hussian hoped his school would assist returning World War II veterans in securing more career opportunities. Soon, the school earned national recognition and respect. Hussian offered an array of art classes — both fine and commercial , eventually being approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to offer graduates an Associate Degree in Specialized Technology. That's right, despite being a four-year school, its lack of academic subjects barred Hussian from awarding a Bachelor's Degree. Nevertheless, Hussian was my choice. I'd be damned if I was gonna sweat though another calculus problem or tinker with vials of sodium bi-who-gives-a-shit ever again.

In the summer of 1980, along with 79 other fresh, budding artists, I was accepted to Hussian. By the time four years passed, the class was whittled down to a mere 43, many of whom (I learned later) didn't pursue a career in the arts — fine or otherwise. I obviously did follow my dream (or goal or...whatever you want to call it... curse, perhaps), although, after 30-plus years, no one has ever asked to see my diploma or inquired about my degree. My ever-changing, ever-evolving portfolio has always been my qualifier.

Hussian tradition has been to have the seniors host a showcase of their work one evening just before the May commencement ceremony. Members of the local, professional art community are invited, as well as alumni. I have attended nearly every one since I graduated (except for that conflicting date in 2001 when Ken Griffey Jr. made his National League debut with the Cincinnati Reds in a game against the Phillies — it's baseball, for goodness sakes!). I love to see the work on display, especially new takes on projects I, myself, was assigned thirty years earlier.

At last year's showcase, I ran into a teacher who taught when I was a student. He was going to announce his separation from Hussian at the end of that semester. He explained that the school had been purchased by two entrepreneurial brothers as an investment, adding it to their roster of restaurants, bars and other non-educational businesses. Without exact words, he expressed his dismay — nay, anger — at the situation. He also hinted that, in his opinion, Hussian's days were numbered.

This week, I received a solicitation postcard from Hussian. In a burnt ochre banner (I still remember my colors!), spanning the card were the words "NEW BACHELOR'S DEGREE!," in a reversed-out bold, sans-serif font (look at me, using cool graphic arts terms!). For 68 years, Hussian sent scores of artists into the world, some more successful than others, but not a single one wielding a Bachelor's Degree. And they all seemed to do just fine.

Sadly, it looks like Hussian is grabbing for a life preserver and possibly going down for the third time.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

you might like to hear my organ

A few months ago, Sly joined the Marketing Department at work. Sly is the web master and spends his day... oh, I don't know... web mastering, I suppose. Whenever I walk by his open office door, I catch a glimpse of his shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair bobbing over the top of the two monitors that span his small desk, his brow furrowed in deep concentration and his fingers flying frantically across his keyboard. I can only assume that he is busy. Heck, we're all busy.

But Sly, like Bruce Wayne, has another life.

Last night, I met a couple of co-workers at the mysteriously named Kung Fu Necktie, a bar-cum-concert venue in Philadelphia's renaissance Fishtown neighborhood, to witness Sly's "other" life. Kung Fu Necktie was presenting a three-band show — the first band being fronted by none other than our pal Sly.

"Did someone lose their key?"
As the clock ticked towards nine, the tiny performance area, just a few cramped feet from the bar and pool table, began to fill with beer-toting audience members. Sly and his band mates entered from the bar, cut through the mingling patrons and easily climbed up onto the darkened stage. The guitarist and bassist each checked their respective amplifiers, fiddling with knobs and securing plugs. The drummer impatiently twirled his sticks and gave a few sample thumps on the kick. Sly took his place behind a massive vintage Hammond organ, his last-minute adjustments hidden from view by his instrument's considerable bulk. Suddenly, Sly grabbed his microphone and screamed out "ONETWOTHREE!," in true ass-kickin', rock-n-roll bravura. The band obliged by bursting into a raw but funky beat. Sly leaned forward and, with the same focused intensity he exhibits while tapping out HTML code on his Microsoft keyboard, took the lead by banging out a sensually playful riff on the Hammond's keys. With the sound mix at full blast, Sly's garage-y voice was just another instrument, the actual lyrics indistinguishable. The band tore through one song after another, most paying deep homage to the incomparable Booker T., with lyric-less organ-heavy leads and 60s funk-drenched bass lines. All through their set, Sly was pounding intensely on the organ. As he pummeled those keys, he kept repeatedly sucking the tip of his right ring finger, obviously trying to accelerate the healing process on a fresh contusion. He laughed and displayed his finger to the bass player, who smiled and acknowledged the wound by shaking his long, grey dreadlocks in the affirmative. At the song's conclusion, Sly apologized for a few sour  notes, citing a broken key. Then, he violently yanked the culprit from among the other eighty-eight and lobbed it into the crowd, where it disappeared into the swirling mood lighting.

Sly and his cohorts wrapped up the set and thanked the crowd above a round of approving applause. As the piped-in, between-set music swelled, the band began to break down their equipment to make room for the next group of performers. Sly and another man wrestled the organ off the stage and sequestered it to a far wall where it would be dealt with at the end of the evening. After, shaking hands and sharing hugs with a few members of the audience, Sly made his way over to me and his other co-workers. He thanked us for coming and we told him how much we enjoyed his set. 

But we secretly wondered how our minds would envision Sly at his desk on Monday morning.

* * * UPDATE * * *
 The organ has been repaired and lives to funk another day.